If you’ve never been to the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, you may find yourself wondering whether you are going to see a show or are on your way to pay for parking. Sharing its site with a garage, the theatre is situated across from Six Penn in the heart of the Cultural District. A placard directs you inward and up to a second floor space that’s just large enough for personal comfort but small enough to elicit intimacy with fellow theatregoers. A hidden gem alongside its bigger and noisier neighbors, the strengths of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company (PPTCO) lie in its size, sense of community, and relative youth.
PPTCO recently added another stage area, aptly named the couch theater, employed for two of the plays comprising Frank Gagliano’s Voodoo Trilogy. Performed in quick succession on Mardi Gras, the evening began with In the Voodoo Parlor of Marie Laveau (An Unsung Voodoo Chamber Opera), followed by a staged reading of The Commedia World of Lafcadio B. (A Farce), and capped off by Congo Square (The Musical). All three, set in differing times in the New Orleans residence of Marie Laveau, preeminent voodoo queen, the night was woven into an entrancing exploration of corruption, fantasy and—yes—desire. And don’t think the fact that each show in the trilogy has three actors was lost on me!
In the Voodoo Parlor… begins with the tortured ramblings of Laveau, an unintelligible stew of inflected mash (I can’t say I wasn’t relieved when both the Post-Gazette and City Paper conceded that they, too, found it incomprehensible). Beyond that, Chrystal Bates plays a convincingly feverish Laveau as she guides two lost souls in their misguided pursuits. It’s worth it to see the show on one of its remaining performances (March 10–12, 8PM) purely for the stage direction, which makes use of the vibrantly detailed set, as well as for the sense of rhythm imbued by the lilting reading of lines, supported by nearby African drums. [Future visitors, be warned!—comfy and intimate, the couch theater may warrant a pre-show trip to the Starbucks around the corner before you sink in and listen to the actors’ soothing cadences, which cast a soporific effect.]
Lafcadio B, while merely a reading rather than full production, gave such a taste of its actors’ talents for character detail and timing that it made one long for more. Titular character Lafcadio Beauregard aka Lobo, self-described confidence man, entwines his fellow characters in his schemes to evade debts and swindle a considerable sum.
The final feature, a musical, portrays a deranged young man (charming Monteze Freeland) in his search for the source of culpability in a corrupt world. Congo Square has an air of fragility that provides a glimpse of what The Glass Menagerie might have been had it been given a dash of racial politics a few decades later. The songs evoke something out of a Jason Robert Brown musical in their playfulness. Despite these comparisons, Congo Square shows a glimmer of originality and ambition of its own that allows its players to create genuine moments of lucidity and warmth. Ultimately, the plot is too muddled to achieve what the play really grasps for, but—a show that’s ambitiously written, well-acted, with beautiful set design?—I’ll take that any day.
Read an interview with playwright Gagliano that reveals his impressive history and his take on the three plays.